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This modules discusses how the idea for the Speak N Spell was created by Paul Breedlove. It ends with finally gaining funding to produce the first demonstration of the product idea.


Paul Breedlove had the idea to create a product that would help children to spell, just as the Little Professor™ Learning aid (1) had done for math. Figure 1 shows a Little Professor, TI's first attempt at moving away from the classical concept of a calculator to a product that would help students learn the concepts of math. Unlike spelling, a math problem can be stated using written words. Or, in the case of the Little Professor, present the math problem minus the solution. The user could then enter the solution to the problem, with three tries at answering, before the correct answer was displayed moving on to the next formula. Addition, subtraction, multiplication and division in four different levels of difficulty were taught. It is worth noting here that several years later we created a talking math product called Speak N Math™(2), see Figure 2.

For the Little Professor the problems and responses were presented using an LED display. In the case of spelling an LED display wouldn't work, the product would need to speak the word to be spelled and then allow the child to enter the spelling of the word. If the spelling was correct the next word would be introduced, if incorrect, the child would be told that it was wrong and allowed to try again. If the response was still incorrect a third time the word would be spelled correctly before moving on to the next word.

The Little Professor learning aid from Texas instruments circa 1976.
The Speak n Math learning aid from Texas Instruments, circa 1980.

There was another interesting concept being developed at TI called “Bubble Memories”. The idea was to store data using magnetic technology to create magnetic bubbles. Bubbles were created and then moved around a designated path using a magnetic field. As they came around the track, they could be read, destroyed or created. The benefit of magnetic bubbles was that they remained stable when the magnetic field was turned off. It was a new concept of a non-volatile memory. Other that the technical difficulties, there was one major issue – what could be done with these memories that couldn’t already be done? That is, what was the killer application that would drive the development. It was a technology looking for a problem to solve.

With this as a background, here is how the idea for the Speak N Spell evolved.

Evolving the idea

When it became apparent that the Little Professor math learning aid was going to be a success, a brainstorming session was called among many people in the corporation, including Jim Moore leader of the consumer calculator design team. Among the possibilities was a spelling learning aid. Other people in the session were looking for killer application(s) for another interesting concept being developed at TI called “Bubble Memories”. They thought it could be a good technology for the non-volatile memory needed to store the spelling lists in such a learning aid. As they continued to brainstorm about the spelling learning aid they came upon a stumbling block; how should the word to be spelled be presented? Several possibilities were discussed, but a suitable solution was not identified.

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Source:  OpenStax, The speak n spell. OpenStax CNX. Jan 31, 2014 Download for free at http://cnx.org/content/col11501/1.5
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